Students often experience some of the worst housing conditions in the country, yet their voices are often marginalised and ignored. The issue has worsened, to the extent that student housing has essentially become a joke, with various popular culture depictions portraying the often disgusting conditions in which students are forced to live.
Fresh Meat provides a prime example of this; while it might seem hyperbolic at first glance, for those who didn’t go to university or who were privileged enough to be able to spend extortionate amounts on purpose-built student accommodation. Even students who can afford this, still face problems with the standard of accommodation and value for money available.
However, slug trails, mould, broken windows, burglaries and malfunctioning boilers are all issues that students are faced with regularly. This is not hyperbole, it is reality.
I have spoken to many of my friends and family members about student housing and nobody was surprised by my experiences of substandard housing and neglectful landlords. Everybody knows that this is happening. In my own experience, I have dealt with broken windows not being fixed for four months, mice, slugs, mould, no heating or hot water for weeks, windows with no curtains that woke me up at sunrise everyday and landlords turning up unannounced during a pandemic without masks.
Throughout this pandemic hundreds of students have posted on platforms such as TikTok, showing leaking ceilings, broken kitchen equipment and rat infestations. So it begs the question of why this is allowed to continue. It is a woeful neglect of young people and it leaves students incredibly vulnerable and living in awful conditions.
This isn’t only a problem with students privately-renting, it is also a problem with student accommodation, whether provided directly through the university or a third party provider. As the Guardian reported, student accommodation ‘doesn’t officially classify as housing…as it falls outside a specific use class, it doesn’t have to adhere to the usual standards associated with dwellings’. It means that student housing is often treated as either a hotel (C1) or residential institution i.e. care home or hospital (C2), because these types of accommodation are not intended for prolonged residence, there are far fewer regulations when it comes to space and daylight.
The responsibility for the poor conditions and facilities that students endure in purpose-built student housing lies directly with universities and third parties. Universities have, or should have, a duty of care to their students and exploiting gaps in housing regulations completely contradicts this moral obligation.
There is a huge divide in student cities, between aging university-owned student accommodation that is in dire need of refurbishment, and brand-new purpose-built accommodation often in city centres. For the majority of students, choosing their university accommodation for the first time they are faced with a dilemma: spend all or the vast majority of their student loan on quality accommodation and struggle with living costs for the year or have more money to enjoy their first year of university life, but live in poor housing.
Most students choose the latter and while it might seem like a good compromise for them, students should not have to choose between having enough student loan to survive, and living in adequate housing.
Part of this comes down to a lack of understanding about tenants’ rights among students. I’d argue that the blame for this lies with the universities themselves. They clearly understand the position that young people are in when they arrive at university. Yet, they don’t provide any real information to students about their rights with regards to renting. The vast majority of young people rent for the first time at university and so this kind of information would be crucial to these students. Why is none provided?
ACORN renter’s union has been working hard in many major student cities to provide students with more information about their rights. Additionally, they have taken action on behalf of students who are struggling with neglectful landlords, such as their recent action in Manchester when ‘over 25 ACORN members marched on the business address of Zear Property who left university student Kelsey in squalid living conditions so bad, that she was forced to move cross-country back to her hometown in the middle of the pandemic.’
While, of course, it is great that students have groups on their side in these situations and this support is clearly needed, it should be the landlords themselves and universities that are taking action. Additionally, it is clear that gaps in regulations surrounding student accommodation needs to be resolved.
It is interesting then, that when young people attempt to make their voices heard about their housing experiences they are often dismissed and deemed irrelevant or naive. The state of the housing market at present means that it will likely be decades before current university students are able to put down a deposit on a first house, and so their experiences of renting are incredibly valid.
Moreover, if young people do not know their rights with regards to tenancies and are taken advantage of during their university study, they will likely continue to be taken advantage of once they graduate. This creates more opportunities for landlords to cut corners, provide substandard accommodation and charge extortionate prices for the privilege.
The government has argued that it has introduced measures to protect students in student housing and this is woefully inaccurate. Although protections have been put in place regarding deposits, and this has been a welcome development, there is much more that needs to be done. This government announcement suggests that more has been done to make sure that landlords resolve problems quickly, yet this is just not being seen implemented in reality.
From my personal experience, I had to wait for three months for our heating to be fixed, despite being in constant contact with my landlord asking them to resolve the issue. Landlords certainly seem to exploit the lack of understanding of the rights of tenants at present and government action has done little to resolve this.
We need real, robust action from universities to provide useful information to students from the moment they apply, months before they will need to choose accommodation. Young people need to be aware of their options, realistic expectations and rights before they enter into any contracts. Some universities provide lists of approved landlords, who do not attempt to take advantage of students, while other universities actively attempt to discourage any such lists being made.
Universities need to be standing up for their student populations and working with local councils to ensure that private student housing is up to scratch. MPs also need to be raising this issue, to draw attention to the increasing disparity between aging student accommodation and modern expensive accommodation, but also to amend legislation to make sure that student housing is adequately regulated.
Greater consultation with students over their housing experiences would help to identify major problems and explore mitigation. Our experiences are valid and they represent a significant problem of landlords having too much power that is present throughout our housing sector.